SPEARFISH — A provision in a city ordinance has one pet owner struggling to come to terms with what happened to his beloved 4-year-old cat.
Cavan Jurgens, of Spearfish, would oftentimes allow his cat, “Poobs,” to be outside at night. An issue arose when his neighbor called the police to report the cat as a nuisance, because it would leave remnants of dead animals in his yard. In response, a trap was set up in the neighbors yard. Jurgens admitted that his cat did not have a collar on when it was trapped by an animal control officer with the Spearfish Police Department.
There are certain guidelines that the Spearfish Police Department follows when dealing with stray animals that appear to be sick, injured or vicious. In most cases, an animal at large is impounded and brought to the Western Hills Humane Society, where it is cared for until its owner retrieves them.
But, according to city ordinance, if the officer dealing with the animal considers it to be feral, the animal can be destroyed without notification.
Because of the cat's erratic behavior while in the trap, the animal control officer told Jurgens that he determined the cat to be feral, and shot the animal.
Jurgens said in his mind there was no way his cat was feral. She was up to date on her shots, healthy and loved.
“When I asked the animal control officer why my cat was shot, he said she was acting violent and that he felt she was dangerous,” he said. “I know her, and she wouldn't hurt someone unless they hurt her. Sure, she may have been erratic because she was scared, but there was no reason to bring her out to a field and shoot her.”
Since the incident occurred, Jurgens has met with several city officials, including Mayor Jerry Krambeck.
“Our mayor has been so supportive, and I really feel like he cares about what happened to me, and wants to make sure this doesn't happen to someone else,” Jurgens said. “That's why I'm doing all of this … if it saves one animal from an untimely death then I will know I'm making a difference.”
Krambeck, who met with Jurgens immediately after the incident, which occurred on Aug. 22, said this shouldn't have happened and everyone involved hopefully learned a valuable lesson.
“I feel horrible for Cavan … I really do. This is one of those things that you can't take back,” he said. “This has definitely raised some concerns, especially when it comes to how an officer determines whether a cat is feral or not. In this case, the cat was probably scared and acted out, but the officer should have taken a different course of action.”
Spearfish Police Chief Pat Rotert admitted that in this particular case, Tate Hayford, the animal control officer on duty, should have impounded the animal, rather than destroy it.
“I have no problem acknowledging the fact that if the officer had brought the cat to the humane society this would have never happened,” Rotert said.
If the cat would have been impounded, Jurgens would have had five days to retrieve her. But, because the humane society is a no kill shelter, the cat would have lived even if someone didn't show.
“If a cat comes in, it stays here with us and we just hope that someone who needs cats will come in and adopt them,” said Shar Bergum, director of the Western Hills Humane Society. Today, they have more than 70 cats, half of which have been brought in as strays. As for feral cats, they too are kept alive and oftentimes adopted as barn cats.
“Our hope is to send the ones that are difficult to deal with and make sure they are given to good homes. Otherwise we just deal with the wild cats,” she said.
If the animal isn't impounded and shows signs of being feral, Rotert said they deal with whether or not to euthanize an animal on a case-by-case basis and added that this particular incident sparked a conversation regarding policy within the department.
“Our hope is that something like this doesn't happen again,” Rotert said.
Stray cats, he said, can become a problem for a community if an animal control officer doesn't address the situation. To assist in those efforts, he said, pet owners must license their cat or dog with the city and do what they can to prevent them from running at large.
“I think we are fairly proactive in dealing with stray animals and that's why it's not really a problem,” Rotert said.
When asked about how an animal is destroyed, Rotert said it depends on the situation. The most common methods are pharmaceutical euthanasia and use of firearms.
As for what is humane and what isn't — that is left up to the individual to decide.
“This term has different meaning to different people,” he said.
Rotert added that since Hayford was hired a few months ago, he's done a good job. On a daily basis, he deals with everything from barking dogs and wildlife complaints to abuse and neglect cases.
“He's handled hundreds and hundreds of calls and to this day we have not received any negative feedback other than in this case,” Rotert said.
According to city ordinance, an animal control officer is provided with the option to destroy any sick or injured animal without holding it for the stipulated 72 hours, if its condition is such that immediate destruction is necessary or desirable. It further states that all animals should be destroyed in a humane manner. If the animal control officer considers a dog or cat to be vicious, they are also allowed to destroy the animal without having to impound it.
If the dog or cat is impounded, the owner shall be notified within 24 hours if their identity and location are provided. The owner then has five days after the animal is impounded to provide a certificate of vaccination, a city license and pay for all of the fees incurred. If after five days the owner does not come to pick up their animal, city ordinance states that the city's liability shall cease and it will be put up for adoption or disposed of in a humane manner by any police officer, animal control officer or veterinarian.
Spearfish's ordinances mirror those of Lead, Deadwood and Belle Fourche. In both Lead and Deadwood, any dog or cat having dangerous propensities or considered dangerous or vicious — meaning they attack or chase a person — may be killed by any police officer without impounding the animal.
In Belle Fourche, if an officer makes the determination that a dog is vicious or dangerous the officer can impound the animal for up to 72 hours while an investigation occurs into the incident. From there, an officer can choose to humanely destroy the animal or impound the animal for an additional 48 hours, or until the owner retrieves it.
The laws are similar in Lawrence County as well. An animal found running at large is impounded for not more than three days, and if it is not claimed by the owner during that time period, the animal can be disposed of at the discretion of the animal control officer or put up for adoption. If the animal is sick or injured, the animal control officer can choose to dispose of the animal in a humane manner, rather than impounding the animal.